by Christina De La Rocha
Dangling kitten chow over the gaping maw, “What kind of freaky bird,” you asked, “has a schnozzle as big and heavy as the rest of itself?”
We’d found the beastling below the wall of ivy beside the car, ejected from some nest hidden within. Judging from the hatchling’s lack of size and feathers, it had been born today, the day the arctic blasted its way this far south, killing spring’s new shoots and blossoms. Birds are practical bastards. Can’t feed ’em? Throw ’em out. Better luck with clutch two three weeks from now.
The beak, although enormous, was beautiful, curved, and polished, like a swooping black horn. Eye-catching orange trimmed it where it emerged from the hatchling’s face, the universal symbol for INSERT FOOD HERE.
“A raven?” I volunteered.
You looked pointedly back down at the hatchling no bigger than a thimble. You could see how you could get a wren out of that, no problem (except for that schnozzle), but a raven? Your typical raven was two hundred times more massive than a wren.
We scratched our heads.
Eventually, “Oh my,” you said. Because of course. Two miles away. The paleozoological genetics lab.
The one into Mesozoic resurrections.
We looked at each other.
There were protocols for renegade dinosaur situations. Laws about them, in fact. Failing to report a sighting ̶ that was a misdemeanor. Failing to turn in anything you had trapped ̶ that got you jail time and/or a ginormous fine.
“But,” you said, “I took it in. I promised it I’d take care of it. Its life is on my soul now.”
I went upstairs to think it over.
* * * * *
Argument for calling in the authorities:
* * * * *
“Freaky B will never be bigger than a sparrow!” you cried, stomping your foot. Then, gazing down, you softened. Underneath the heat lamp, the sleeping Freaky shuddered and kicked, flapping his little wings non-stop. “Look at him,” you said. “How can you deny life to something with that much will to live?”
“What’s he doing?” I asked, thinking Freaky was exactly the right name.
“He’s training himself for life,” you exclaimed. “He’s building muscles and neural pathways while still just mainly sleeping.” You smiled all the wonder in the universe at me. “Isn’t it amazing?”
As the pièce de résistance against my resistance, you fished out an earthworm you’d fished out earlier from the garden and dangled it over the sleeping Freaky’s head. His schnozzle shot straight up and gaped, teetering upon a straining, stringy neck. Ecstatic trills began assaulting us. You grinned as I frowned, leaned in more closely, and dropped my jaw. These FEED ME cheeps were not being emitted by the beastling’s mouth, but by its cloaca, which is the opening at the other end.
“Does Freaky B know joy or what?” you laughed, lowering the worm in to be digested alive. “We can’t doom something so in love with life.” Because for sure they’d pulp the little thing. The will to escape and the ability to live through it, those were bad, bad genes.
I scratched my head. “How many?” I asked.
“Worms? Fifty a day,” you said as Freaky shlucked it down. “Plus kitty kibble and the occasional bit of boiled egg.”
The little birdling thing’s butt hoisted itself high and wriggled. Poop popped out packaged within a diaphanous membrane. “All the better for going SPLAT upon your head,” you smiled, catching it with a paper towel before it made a mess on the kitchen table. Freaky settled down belly down in his nest, his cloaca now peeping contentedly through puckered lips like a clock winding down. Then he was asleep.
I looked at you. Was that for real?
“Evolutionary efficiency,” was your best guess. “A way to eat and cheep at the same time, unsqueaky wheels tending not to get fed by their parents.”
You looked so proud of the little guy.
“Sorry.” I winced. “It has to go.”
You didn’t speak. Just burned me with your eyes.
“Free flying flocks of Freakys,” I said, “might eat up all the wheat crops.”
That made you hesitate. We still were still working on getting climate change under control. Famine was a widespread enough problem without tossing another new agricultural pest into the fray.
“Or they might rid the Earth of earthworms,” I swept on, intending to make you think of hedgehogs, blackbirds, organic farmers, and every other creature that needed earthworms to survive.
With that I nearly had you. I just needed to nudge you over the edge.
“Or bring down jetliners by flying en masse into the engines,” I said, with flourish, playing to your fear of flying.
But it was a bridge too far. You shot up and shouted, “Freaky will never know a cage!” then clamped your hands over your mouth lest the neighbors hear that there’d been a breakout and it was already on Generation Two.
* * * * *
For the next secretive, all-consuming 33 days, you raised that dinosaur, feeding it once every 30 minutes between dawn and dusk. That took serious pillaging of the garden, you and your shovel raising curious frowns from passing neighbors. I often overheard you sigh, “Freaky, if god turns out to be an earthworm, I’m in for eternal hell and then some.” But really, you were proud of him. That appetite! What a big boy he’d grow up to be.
By day ten, Freaky’s juvenile plumage had grown in, if a tiny pterosaur’s pycnofibers can be called plumage. It was dull and drab, there being safety in those things. The way you smiled, I knew you dreamed adulthood would replace it with peacock splendor and grand singing from the tallest treetops. Your Freaky would be the best and the boldest and the most beautiful.
But I also saw the wistfulness. He’d leave the nest someday and then the garden and you’d never know the rest of his story. “He’ll never come home to visit, grandkids in tow,” you said wistfully.
“Swallows always come back home,” I replied.
“But most birds don’t,” you said. “Far away makes so much sense. Come chick-making time, you don’t want to unknowingly shack up with a cousin, or worse, a sister. Some fully fledged birds fly as far away as England before settling down.”
Nonetheless, you taught Freaky to fly.
Well, no, that’s a lie.
Freaky B was no sentimental mammal needing coddling and a schoolhouse. Everything he needed to learn unfolded from within. When you turned him out of the nest onto the floor, shocked, he lost his balance and… hopped. As we watched, he cocked his generously beschnozzled head then hopped again. Then again and again back and forth across the room for hours until he had it mastered. Hops progressed to glides progressively longer and higher off the ground until one day when you walked in, he swooped onto your shoulder and shrieked straight into your ear to let you know he’d found his voice (the one that didn’t come from the cloaca).
Although flight risked fatal window bashing and poop everywhere ̶ “Clearly,” you said to me, “dinosaurs could not have been housetrained” ̶ it was Freaky’s scooting that was the most unsettling. His wings had elbows in a way that bird wings don’t. They also sported four-fingered claws at the joint one long segment before their tip, sort of like a bat, only with bats it’s just a thumb. Planting those claws, he could lope along the ground like a four-inch silverback running a three-legged race. “Freaky!” you would cry almost every time. “This will give you away then your whole life you’ll be hunted.” But Freaky would just look at you as if to say, when you’re the size of a sparrow, that’s just how it goes.
When your little office began to bore your dinosaur, you released Freaky into the garden, where he taught himself to peck and then to hunt. All he needed from you and the fine-tipped tweezers was the hint to send the captured down the hatch. You showed him once and he was over the moon. Ants! Pill bugs! Centipedes! The whole world had become his lunchbox. The moment he coaxed out, pounced on, and slurped down his first earthworm, you were over the moon, too. This tiny pterosaur, he was smart.
Then Freaky figured out that you, big human that you were, could lift stones and potted plants under which creepy crawlies did abound. Now whenever you arrived in the garden, he scuttled up your clothing and shrieked into your ear until, wincing, you complied, saying, “Okay, Freaky. Just this one last time.” I had to laugh. This 20-day-old Einstein had trained you, not the other way around.
You started losing sleep when Freaky began hanging with the sparrows. They didn’t mind. “They’re open-minded,” you told me. But what worried you was, did Freaky know he was no sparrow?
“It’s bad enough he imprinted on me,” you said. “That couldn’t be avoided. But now he’s singing sparrow songs.”
“Yeah, and?” I asked. “It beats gangsta rap.”
You exhaled, exasperated. This was a serious issue. If Freaky ever met one of his own kind, would he know them or had we doomed him to a lifetime of romantic tragedy?
I laughed, envisioning our beschnozzled pterosaur loping like a little ape after some terrified she-sparrow. Then I was told that wasn’t funny.
As Freaky grew older, Freaky grew bolder, making excursions into neighboring gardens, one morning sitting on the neighbor’s laundry line, shrieking like, Hey, human, turn over that stone! “At least, at first glance, he passes for a passerine,” you told me. But. Still. Your eyes said it all. Freaky B, be careful. Not every human was as nice as you. (Or as much of an outlaw.)
One day Freaky took his time responding to the breakfast call. You wandered through the garden for 20 minutes, shouting his name, all the while dreading you’d find an explosion of pycnofibers upon the ground. Your eyes grew so wide at the possibilities. The neighbor’s cat. A passing kestrel. But then he arrived and demanded arthropods.
The next day, when Freaky saw you come into the garden, he flew away and stayed away for hours. “But when he came back, he was so friendly,” you said, far too hopefully. “Crawling up my clothes. Sitting on my shoulder. Chirping in my ear!” You winced at the memory of that sound. “We ambled about the garden together, him letting me upturn stone after stone to reveal the writhing hordes beneath as if for one last time for old time’s sake.”
The next day, of course, when you came out into the cold just after dawn, Freaky B was gone. You walked from bush to tree, calling his name in vain.
“I know I should be proud of him,” you said, your voice catching, when you came back in.
“And of yourself,” I added perhaps a bit patronizingly, mainly relieved that our lawbreaking days were over.
You smiled bravely. “He launched successfully!”
But I saw that all you saw was that your friend was gone. Suddenly, my heart hurt, too.
Later, when you thought I wasn’t listening, you went outside.
“Freaky B,” you announced to the dismal, empty garden, “you’d better have the Best. Life. Ever.” But although for years you would scan the news reports and every branch of every tree you walked by, you already knew you’d never know the rest of that not-bird’s story.
* * * * *